unsettled lives
In the last decade, homelessness has taken on a child's face. Mary Ellen Mark photographs several New York families in the shelter system. David Handelman reports on how they got there and where they're going.
June 1994

Elige McGee, Jr., and his two children at the HELP transitional housing facility on Morris Avenue in the Bronx.

At the end of a snow‑laden day in February, Nilsa Ruiz and her two daughters are taking a grueling 90‑minute subway ride from their temporary quarters in the Bronx to Woodhaven, Queens, to look at a prospective apartment. It's a ritual they've been through before, and they seem tired but hopeful. "I like looking at apartments," says Ivette, fourteen. "I don't want too big or too small‑just right." Her sister Evelyn, ten, is bundled in an oversize purple coat; tuckered out from a school trip to a production of As You Like It("They talked too much like the Bible. But I liked the man dressed up as a woman"), she sits curled up against her mother.

Ruiz, a thin, reserved 33‑year‑old with high cheekbones and hair pulled back in a ponytail, is wearing a blue overcoat, green slacks, and across two fingers of her left hand, a ring that reads MOTHER. In her lap is an overnight bag. Tonight the Ruizes will stay at her sister's so tomorrow they can look at two more places instead of having to backtrack on the subway. (Ruiz's 16‑year‑old son, Alberto, who has been a handful lately, is staying at his girlfriend's parents' house.)

After passing through Manhattan, the train emerges from underground to an elevated trestle. Ivette ‑a spunky, lanky girl wearing a name necklace‑ stands clinging to one of the poles, staring absently out the windows at the cityscape whizzing by in the dusk.

As the train leans into a curve, she grimaces. "I hate when it tilts," she says. "It looks like you're gonna fall over." But her equilibrium is pretty resilient. It was Ivette who today remembered the purse her mother had forgotten; who purchased the tokens for the trip; and who memorized the names and addresses of the relevant real estate agents.

When Nilsa was Ivette's age, she had already left both school and her chaotic home (twelve brothers and sisters) to be with the man who would later father her children. After eighteen years together, they finally married on Valentine's Day, 1992; a month later, she kicked him out, accusing him of hiding a drug problem. They're no longer in touch.

Suddenly, out the train window, Ivette recognizes a passing building: "We used to live across from that hospital for nine years," she says. "Then Cornelia Street for four years. Then we went to the shelter."

That was last summer. There'd been a fire in one of the other apartments in their six‑unit building; the landlord abandoned the place, and it was soon overrun with drug dealers. Unable to use her housing assistance money to relocate, Ruiz doubled up with her mother in the projects; after a month of this, she realized that she needed more help.. “I blamed myself,” she says. “I was going to become homeless. I was older, I was supposed to be stronger. After all this time, to lose everything! My daughters were crying, my nerves were destroyed."

Nilsa Ruiz's daughters, Ivette (left) and Evelyn, in a room at HELP Morris. "I want them to go to college," says Ruiz, who was illiterate until age 24.

Nellie Torres, nineteen, and her children, Jasmin and Bianca (in crib), when they were staying at the 96‑family HELP facility in the Bronx at Crotona Park North.” They have the same father," says Torres, "but he's gone."

The Ruizes don't fit the popular image of the homeless ‑bedraggled, deranged loners pushing shopping carts full of bizarre earthly goods, panhandling or randomly terrorizing passersby. But over the last decade, homeless has become a much less exclusive term; as Steven Banks, a lawyer for the Homeless Family Rights Project, says, "It's taken on a child's face." Of the 22,500 people in New York City shelters, 9,400 are children; each day 30 more families ask for help. "There's a lot more homelessness than people realize," says Doug Lasdon of New York's Legal Action Center for the Homeless. "When you walk down the street, you don't see the families ‑they're in burned‑out buildings, or doubled and tripled up in substandard housing. But they're there."

When Ruiz hit bottom last July, she took her kids to the Emergency Assistance Unit on Catherine Street in Manhattan, a drab office where people sometimes had to spend days or weeks sleeping overnight on the floor or in chairs before receiving aid. There was brawling, stealing, rats. (Thanks to recent groups, all but one of the EAUs have since been shut down; families now apply for homeless aid at their local welfare offices.) "It was packed," Ruiz recalls, "a little filthy. You got all kinds of people there, and you're with your kids, you want to get out of there as soon as possible."

Luckily the Ruizes' stay at the EAU lasted only eight hours. From there they were sent to the Auburn Assessment Center in Brooklyn, where they were assigned a private room in the converted eight‑story, turn‑of‑the‑century hospital, and met with a caseworker, who evaluated everything from their housing history and financial situation to the family's mental health and medical problems. "Basically we measure how they've conducted their lives," says Auburn's director, Brendan Collins. "People are often in denial; they say, 'All I need is affordable housing.' We try to get them to see their patterns and help them." A visit to Auburn quickly conveys a sense of how families experience city government: In Collins's office, every few minutes a piercing beep emits from a smoke detector whose battery has run low; when asked for a copy of a list of facilities to which families get sent, Collins calls to ask someone else, who calls to ask someone else, who waffles. "Typical city agency," admits Collins. "Nobody wants to make decisions." (On the other hand, toilet paper is now assigned to each family because when rolls were put in the bathrooms, they were immediately flushed; and shower curtains are continually stolen. "I think people just think of them as government property, so they're entitled," Collins says with a sigh.)

Andrea and Anthony, whose mother turned to drugs, ended up in foster care. Their father, Albert Jenkins, retrieved them only to lose his job and his apartment.

Magdalina Rios and her daughter Jesenia with Milagros Vega's daughter, Carey (right). Both families spent several months at HELP Morris before moving to public assistance apartments in the Bronx.

After nine days in Auburn, the Ruizes were assigned to an innovative transitional housing facility run by HELP (Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged), where Mary Ellen Mark took the pictures on these pages. And that's where they are living ‑Ruiz and the girls crowded in the back room, Alberto on the sofabed in the front‑ when taking their long subway ride in February. When they finally disembark in Queens, night has fallen and the already confusing address number system is further obscured.

Ruiz lights a cigarette, puts her arm around Evelyn, and tries to lead the way. They spend 45 minutes trudging through slushy sidewalks before locating the modest yellow‑sided two‑story house, which faces on a park. "This is beautiful," says Ruiz. "In the Bronx, I don't like the tall buildings, you don't know who's in the neighborhood. In Queens, you got a good environment, you could raise kids. I want them to go to college some day."

The landlord, an Indian man, lets them in and, while they survey the ground floor's somewhat awkward layout, says in what he must think is a reassuring manner, "I told them, 'No black people."' Ruiz doesn't respond but skeptically eyes the overly large paneled dining room, the overly small three bedrooms, and the kitchen, which already has some bug activity.

As soon as they leave, Evelyn ‑who says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up "so I can defend people" declares that it's too small. "That was all right" argues Ivette. Ruiz isn't sure. "We'll see how the other places look tomorrow. If you're too much in a hurry, you get bad places, end up like before."

Ruiz is worried because, she says, "my son has to fit in the front room with his girlfriend…" and the girlfriend isn't part of the official head count in their housing allotment. Ruiz already lost one potential place by telling the truth. She's also not telling the whole story. A few weeks later, the tenth‑grader's 15‑year‑old girlfriend gives birth to a child, making Ruiz a grandmother at 33.

Interviewed back at HELP in April, Ruiz says that she will insist that her son finish school, then get a job and move out. "He's got to learn how to struggle, you know?" Ruiz looks out the window onto the HELP playground. "All I want to do is work and support my family," she says. "Since I was 17, all I did was raise kids. I lost a lot of time. But it's never too late." On April 1 5 they moved to Queens.

Hector and Pablo Santos. Their mother, Zuvil Santos, lost her apartment after a billing dispute with the landlord. Santos had a job as a gas station attendant but lost it when the shelter’s curfew conflicted with her hours.

The national boom in homeless families can be traced not just to factors like teenage pregnancy, poverty, and drug hobbled marriages, but to government policies of the eighties. When Ronald Reagan took office, the Federal budget devoted to building low-income and subsidized housing was over $30 billion; by the late 1980s, it was $7.5 billion. Even under Clinton, the department of Housing and Urban Development budget is less than half of what it was under Jimmy Carter (in 1994 dollars). At the state level, public assistance housing grants haven't kept pace with the cost of housing. And at the city level, housing‑development policies have led to gentrification and destroyed low‑income housing. Until last July, New York didn't have a separate department of homeless services, so anyone seeking help became tangled in a web of social‑service bureaucracy.

At least while the Ruizes were looking for a more permanent home, they weren't in a bad place. The HELP facility on Morris Avenue in the Bronx is a far cry from the barracks shelters and the welfare hotels. Opened in December 1990, HELP Morris is one of seven shelters run by the organization started by Andrew Cuomo in the hope that with additional services (job and apartment counseling, substance abuse prevention, family therapy, independent living skills, day care) and protective restrictions (curfew, no guests, no drug use), borderline families will be more likely to land on their feet. Such facilities aren't cheap‑approximately $2,600 per family per month‑but advocates contend that if people are simply placed in apartments (costing perhaps $700 a month) without counseling, they are likelier to end up back in the system.

HELP Morris houses 212 families in a four‑story brick building sur­rounding a courtyard outfitted with a cheerful playground and clock tower. Each has a small motel‑room‑like apartment with a private bathroom and kitchenette. Families stay, on average, only six months, until a suitable apartment can be found. There's a fence and an elaborate security system; residents must sign in and out, cannot have visitors in their apartments nor be absent for more than 48 hours at a time, and can be discharged for various violations. But rather than a prison, it's more like a fortress against the factors that bring people here. "It can feel restrictive," says Susan Cahill, executive director of HELP Bronx. "But considering where they've come from domestic violence, drug infested, condemned housing; this is a happy middle."

Still, when asked where they lived, Ruiz and her children usually stated the address but didn't identify it as a shelter. As Evelyn reasoned, "We got a kitchen, we got a living room, we got our own bathtub, we got a park. This is not homeless!"

Ten-year-old Brook Vaughn. Brook and her mother, Jacqueline, lived briefly at the HELP facility in Suffolk, Long Island. “I don’t want brook to grow up too fast,” her mother said. “I want her to enjoy being a child.” They left voluntarily before being placed in housing.

The question, of course, is, What happens to homeless families once they've been through this system? HELP claims a high success rate in keeping its "graduates" self‑sufficient, but it's difficult to assess, since an untallied number of families are kicked out or drop out before completing the program, and HELP isn't equipped to keep tabs on people after departure. Several months of clean living and focus don't always overcome years of disarray and inertia. For instance, at least two children who passed through HELP were recently witnessed being left home alone in their new subsidized apartment while their remaining parent roamed around stoned, hitting up neighbors for change.

But there are also cases like that of Albert Jenkins, a soft‑spoken 50‑year‑old African‑American who had worked steadily as a prep chef for three decades. After his second wife became a crack addict, they lost custody of their two young children, Andrea and Anthony. Jenkins at first quit work to stay home and try to keep his wife off drugs; after she relapsed and disappeared in January 1991, he was told that the kids were going to be put up for adoption. Instead, he fought to get custody himself and, after six months, succeeded.

He wasn't ready, however. Although he'd attended a ten‑week parenting workshop, as soon as the children came home, he says, "Everything went right out the window." The kids were unruly; they could recite different liquors by brand name. Jenkins's housing and child‑support allowances weren't yet processed, and his early‑morning hours didn't mesh with getting Andrea and Anthony to and from elementary school. When he lost his job and could no longer pay his bills, he left his Brooklyn home and went to the Catherine Street EAU. "It was the worst place I ever was in my life," he says. "Stinks, drugs, people on the floor." Horrified, he left before applying for aid and spent the next two years doubling up with various relatives: his aunt in Harlem (where Jenkins and his kids shared a bed in a bathroom‑size room); then his brother in downtown Manhattan; then his mother in Georgia.

At the end of his rope, Jenkins returned to New York in February 1993 and called Child Welfare. "I told the woman to come pick the kids up," he says. "I'd tried it for two years, it's not right to be booting them all over the place. I was very calm. I thought, once I get a job…

Instead, the woman said, "We're not here to break up families," and suggested he return to the EAU and seek placement in transitional housing. Jenkins was wary ‑"I'm thinking hotels, drunks, addicts, filth" ‑ until he arrived at HELP Morris and saw how clean and well‑run it was. Then he couldn't believe he'd wasted the last two years.

"The kids loved it," says Jenkins, "and the rules didn't bother me. I just kept to myself." He had a caseworker, a housing specialist ‑and, briefly, an  education/employment adviser. "I got upset with that lady," he says. "She started talking to me about a GED, and I said, that's the last thing I need at my age. I've worked a trade for 32 years!" To prove himself, he cooked several times for the HELP directors' meetings.

It wasn't a trouble‑free stay. "The place itself is fantastic," Jenkins says. "But the people! I could write a book. One lady got kicked out after her son was caught smoking marijuana right in front of the building, and they searched her apartment and there was all this drug stuff. I saw other people pawn their public‑assistance cards to loan sharks for drug money. And about two weeks before we left, a baby got killed." (The mother's boyfriend is in custody.) "Some people really need to go through these changes," says Jenkins. "Some people just go because it's free."

Last November, after seven months at HELP, Jenkins and his children moved into a two‑bedroom Harlem apartment near the kids' school. Once again he was worried: "I hadn't stayed in Harlem for, like, 40 years." Ultimately he decided, "This area's bad, but it's not the worst. They close all the gates at night." Though the exterior walls have some graffiti, inside, Jenkins's apartment is spotless. One wall is taken up with his stereo cabinet, his prized collection of R & B 45s, and promotional stills of black pop stars dating back to the doo‑wop era. On a Friday in April, Andrea, now nine, and Anthony, eight, show few signs of their former conduct; she quietly interrupts her father's conversation to ask, "Can I watch the television?" and then watches music videos. Over her bed is a poster for the cartoon feature Happily Ever After.

For Jenkins, the ending is less certain. He's seeking his first steady job in two and a half years and still finds it difficult to balance work with his children's needs. "One job, they wanted me to come in at seven AM., and it was all the way out in Brooklyn, so I would've had to leave at five," he says. "Getting the kids up that early doesn't work ‑they end up napping in the classroom. And if I have to pay a full‑time baby‑sitter, it'll defeat the purpose of working!"

But after three years of chaos, he's comparatively settled and has come to terms with his recent homeless status. "It would've been much easier if I'd put them up for adoption," he says. "But I made the sacrifice; I love the kids. Time goes by so fast, they grow so fast… My pride used to both­er me. But now I think it could happen to anybody."

It's impossible to predict how the experiences of this generation of homeless children will affect their adult lives. But they cannot be untouched. Across the Harlem River from Jenkins in the Bronx, another former HELP resident, three‑year‑old Bryon Vega, is bounding around his new ground‑floor two-bedroom apartment with precocious, sunny enthusiasm while his mother, Milagros, argues with the super and the landlord about repairs.

Though clean, the apartment is missing a door and a kitchen cabinet; a jagged tile in the bathroom recently gave Bryon a nasty scrape. Vega says the super has been lax; she thinks he has an attitude about her because she came from a shelter.

Vega, who also has an eight‑year‑old daughter and a fourteen‑year‑old son, was familiar with homelessness from the other side: She had volunteered for years in her church's soup kitchen. The homeless "were always a sad story for me," she says. "I always told my children, 'Never laugh, because you never know if you'll be in that condition.'"

Her warning proved prophetic. She'd gotten by for years working part‑time jobs ‑costume‑jewelry‑maker, legal assistant, credit‑card‑purchase approver, and audio‑store manager. But after Bryon's birth in 1991, she found single parenthood overwhelming. In March 1992 gunfire erupted outside her daughter Carey's school, and Vega fled briefly to Michigan; but the costs of rent, day care, and food spiraled beyond her control. "I felt like I was choking," she says.

They came back to New York and wound up at HELP; meanwhile, back in Michigan, a fire destroyed the house with all her belongings, including all her photos of her children. "That's the only thing that really hurts me," says Vega after the landlord and super leave. "Things like that happen, I don't know how to cope with them."

Bryon reaches up to sit in her lap, and she obliges. "Now I bring Bryon to the church with me when I go," she says. "He loves giving out bread."

Some children, like Bryon, are too young to comprehend what's happening around them. Older ones, like those of former gas station worker Zuvil Santos, seem to stoically accept whatever lot they've been given, as long as the family stays together. Are these kids, raised amid upheaval and uncertainty, up to the task of breaking the cycle of poverty?

Santos, 28, became homeless after a dispute with her landlord; after she moved into a temporary shelter, its curfews prevented her from getting to the gas station when it opened, and she lost her job.

After several months at HELP, she and her three children ‑Pablo, eleven, Jessica, ten, and Hector, nine‑ got an apartment in March near the massive Bronx court building that Tom Wolfe made famous in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

They only qualified for a two‑bedroom, so Santos bunks with Jessica, while Pablo and Hector share the other room. Santos, who has dark eyes and hair and a Cindy Crawford beauty mark, plans to study computers: "I don't want to go back to pumping gas; I want to earn a good living."

The children are already ecstatic; last week Jessica was able to have friends and family over to their apartment for her tenth birthday ‑something she wouldn't have been permitted had they still been at HELP. She has organized her collection of Barbies in the bottom of a metal shopping cart; the dolls lie side by side under one big blanket. Hector and Pablo sit quietly, first making sculptures out of straws and burned‑out miniature Christmas lights, then playing Nintendo; to save up for a Genesis video game, Pablo sells visitors stationery from a Sales Leadership Club at school.

Thanks to various charities, they have new living room and dining room sets and beds, but the apartment is still pretty bare. Santos says all their belongings were confiscated by their former landlord. Among the few items on the wall are school achievement awards, including one Santos had as a child, and Jessica's kindergarten diploma from when the family lived in Florida, reading CLASS OF 2002?

On the refrigerator, Santos has taped a note Pablo wrote to her a few days after they moved in.

Dear Mom,

When I grow up I will get a job and buy you a 2 floor house with an attic 5 or 4 rms, a basement, 2 bathrooms. It's going to be like one of those houses we see every time we are going to the park on Queens (the waterpark) and its sorroundings will be just like those houses (very quiet). And when I get the money I will be your next door neighbor. If I can af­ford it.

Pablo drew a large circle around the last sentence, for emphasis. Why did he write it?

"She always takes care of me," he says, surprised that anyone would even ask. He shrugs and smiles, then opens the refrigerator. The shelves are nearly empty, but he stands with the door open looking into it for a long time.